October is both National Physical Therapy Month and National Sensory Awareness Month. Given the timing of both of these opportunities to increase awareness of both of these topics, I would like to explore the crossroads between Physical Therapy and Sensory Processing Disorders.
When a baby is born they come into the world with an active vestibular system, basic visual-vestibular connections, and random active movements. Throughout development the sensory and motor systems work as a team to help the child learn to move against gravity. This starts as basic as lifting the head off the floor, and progresses to rolling, crawling and walking. During the first few years of life a child’s motor skills transform and the sensory skills become more discriminative in preparation for higher level skills.
Throughout development the sensory and motor systems participate in a balancing act. Each member of the team has its role and the importance of each role is dynamic over time. If one system is not functioning at its peak performance, other systems will jump in to compensate. Whether the child needs to sit at a desk or trying to stand on one foot there needs to be a good balance between visual, vestibular and proprioceptive sensory systems. The trunk, leg and foot need to be in neutral alignment for muscles to be most active. All of these pieces need to happen automatically so that the child can perform the skill without even thinking about it. If one system, such as the visual system hasn’t fully developed, the children may move excessively to allow the vestibular system to compensate for the lack of visual input. Alternatively, if postural alignment isn’t present, the child might move excessively to increase their vestibular input to compensate for the lack of proprioceptive input coming into the brain from poor alignment and strength of the trunk.
Physical therapy can be an important part of the team in supporting development in children with Sensory Processing Disorders. A strong motor foundation, including postural alignment, core strength and motor control, will allow the child to develop the sensory-motor balancing act that will support their gross motor, fine motor, language and social skills for a lifetime.